Early in 1966, John Lennon made his infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus” remark in an interview. That interview was printed in the British press, and no one raised a fuss. A few months later, though, ahead of the Beatles’ US tour in the late summer and fall of that year, those remarks were brought to the attention of the American public.
All over the US, the pious burned Beatles records. One day, some people were Beatles fans, some radio stations were making their records #1 hits, and the next -- based on something that wasn’t in the grooves of those albums and singles: some wry, insightful, but possibly-not-well-considered thing that John Lennon had said months beforehand to a small UK newspaper -- a certain sector of the record-buying public suddenly hated their music enough to destroy records they’d paid good money for, and presumably had been playing, possibly even when they read about John’s supposed blasphemy. To be fair, I would imagine that many of those records were confiscated from their fans by their parents. But not all.
The uproar was extreme enough that the band, already unenthusiastic about touring, quit the road entirely and for good at the end of their US tour that fall. If you’re any kind of a Beatles fan, you know the story. It was John Lennon’s supposed arrogance and moral apostasy that changed the sound of the Beatles from groovy to hateful. People began to listen to the Beatles’ music, looking for other signs of moral corruption, looking for something they’d missed in the songs they’d been listening to the previous two or three years.
You may be less familiar with an exchange during a press conference leading up to the same tour in which the band were asked about an assertion made in a New York Times article that the song “Day Tripper” was about a hooker, and that “Norwegian Wood” was about lesbians. In classic quippy mode, Paul McCartney responded “We’re just trying to write songs about hookers and lesbians, that’s all.”
A few minutes later in the same interview, the band were questioned about the meaning of the song “Eleanor Rigby”. “Two queers,” John said, drawing guffaws from the audience.
It’s a toss-off one-liner, the kind of thing the Beatles were famously adored for, though it doesn’t stand up the same way “turn left at Greenland” does. Indeed, on its face, “two queers,” strikes modern ears as an unkind remark: a cheap laugh line at the expense of people like the author of this piece. It compels a lifelong Beatles fan to perform some tricky mental gymnastics, trying to restore the balance between love for The Beatles and respect for those, like this correspondent, who simply are who they are, and mean no harm.
Remember that in 1966, there was no LGBT movement to speak of. There were Mattachine societies, also known as “homophile groups,” in a few major cities, weakly and abjectly pleading to be allowed to live in peace in society, but in the main, LGBT people were treated horribly throughout the world. The Atascadero State Hospital in California, for example, was castrating and lobotomizing gay men in those days. Violence against gay people was rampant, and, we mustn’t forget, spoken of enthusiastically. The police, rather than protecting gay people, would themselves often commit terrible, violent acts against them.
Tossing off the word “queer” as a joke at a press event in those days would force anyone in earshot to whom the word “queer” applied to laugh along, keeping themselves hidden and fearful. One wonders, for instance, if manager Brian Epstein was present at that presser, laughing nervously at John’s and, for that matter, Paul’s little jokes.
Fifty-some years later, how do those comments meet our ears? Should we finally, at long last, throw out all of our Beatles records, CDs, and reproduction lunchboxes? Can we listen to that music and not hear John Lennon’s sharp comment about “queers” in the back of our minds somewhere?
Consider, though, that Lennon could have been totally serious in telling the press what “Eleanor Rigby” is about. Both lonely Eleanor and sad Father Mackenzie could be alone for that specific reason. And if that’s true, even if only in part, then it changes the whole complexion of that exchange with the press. The language used there would still not sound particularly savory to modern ears, but the intent behind them could have been both defiant and compassionate.
On the other hand, if it’s not true, if Lennon was living up to the attitudes of his times, and throwing under the bus the gay men who were so important in the Beatles’ career – Brian Epstein, Joe Orton, who’d written a screenplay for the third movie the Beatles wound up not making (in part because they were uncomfortable with Orton’s script), how much does that tarnish “Eleanor Rigby,” or “Dear Prudence,” or any of a hundred other songs in that band’s catalogue?
People are flawed, inconsistent. If we were without flaws, we would have nothing to transcend. And if that were the case, how could we make transcendent art, without the experience of rising above the daily dreck and struggle of life in this world?
It’s easy to start this discussion with The Beatles, because one can make the case that they were “good guys” and that their hearts were in the right place. This correspondent believes that, in the main, this is so. Still, we often hear that John Lennon had a mean streak. And it’s worth considering how much weight we can lend Lennon’s imploring us all to “imagine no possessions,” if we know that he enjoyed a life of great material comfort?
And what about less easily defensible artists like Ted Nugent? Or Gary Glitter? Do the facts of their politics and/or their lives alter the value of their recorded work? Both have found their audiences reduced once we learned certain things about who they were. Indeed, Glitter, a known child predator, has seen his work disappear entirely from popular culture. One day, “Rock and Roll, Part II” was played at every sporting event everywhere. The next, when the lurid stories of his pedophilia surfaced, it all suddenly disappeared, probably never to return.
While some would call that justice, others would say that it was one tragedy piled on top of another. Those Gary Glitter records sound exactly as they did before word of his predilections became public. One could argue that the music fans of this world are punishing themselves for Gary Glitter’s crimes. The records are not the man.
Gary Glitter had sex with little girls. He has, apparently, been incorrigible about this. In 2015, he began a 16-year sentence in the UK for multiple incidents. We should not make light of these heinous crimes. When we listen to a song by a particular artist, it creates the feeling that we’re in their presence. But that is an illusion. The extraordinary-but-heinous artist is not there. We and our imaginations are.
Nobody, at this point, can deny that Gary Glitter is a child rapist and needs to be permanently and tightly corralled, and the same is true for more recent examples like Kevin Spacey. But my question – and I have to be honest about being less than absolutely certain about the answer – is this: When we learn that an artist has such a fatal flaw, does that negate all of that artist’s work?
Because one of Gary Glitter’s most famous songs is entitled ‘Do You Want to Touch Me There?” is the whole of his catalogue irredeemably tainted? Is there no Gary Glitter song that we can listen to that doesn’t wither and die from that taint? What about “Rock and Roll, Pt. II,” which has no lyrics?
Perhaps the taint applies to all such work.
This correspondent is reminded of Richard Wagner, his gorgeous music, and the baggage of his rabid and vocal antisemitism. Under favorable conditions, in Hitler’s pre-war Germany, Wagner’s grandiose and Aryan vision thrived for a time, though by the 1938-1939 season, his operas were supplanted in Berlin with a single exception by Italian composers like Verdi, Puccini, and Leoncavallo. It seems the strictures of ideological purity can’t prevent even music as gorgeous as Wagner’s from becoming old hat.
Post-war, Wagner’s music has not disappeared, as modern sensibilities would insist, given his sentiments and his having been co-opted by the Third Reich. In fact, his music has been performed in Israel as recently as 2001, though an announced concert of his symphonic work in 2012 was cancelled due to protests.
But his music has not been silenced: it can’t be. It’s far too ingrained in western culture and in many ways transcends those dark associations, though it can’t escape them.
Humans can’t be reduced to one aspect of their history or ideology. We’re complex, troubled, evil monkeys with a whole universe inside us. To see us as less than that is to unmake us. To suppress great art because the creator of that art has darkness in his soul or heinous acts in her history negates the very purpose of art, which is to allow us all to transcend our own darkness and troubles, to expand our hearts, open the door to the universal, to experience some little flash of the infinite, if only for the short moment of time in which we stand in the presence of something so monumental and stirring as... well, name the work of art that enraptured you the most: some darkness fueled it. That is guaranteed.
I’m picturing Picasso’s “Nude in a Red Chair”, a sublime horror that will live in my heart forever. You can pick your own example.